There is intense speculation that one or more of the Supreme Court's members will retire at the end of the current term. In the past, retiring justices have often given the president a discreet heads-up about their plans, to facilitate the nomination of a successor.
Ergo, when Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 78, paid an unpublicized visit to President Bush on Dec. 20 -- his first drop-by to the Bush White House -- the two must have discussed Rehnquist's desire to leave the court.
Or so it was widely believed by Washington's legal insiders, among whom no Supreme Court tea leaf goes unexamined.
When news of the meeting, which the chief justice initiated, leaked, spokesmen at both the court and the White House said the actual topic had been Rehnquist's long-standing concern about the erosion of judicial salaries -- an issue that was, as it has been before, the focus of Rehnquist's annual New Year's Day report on the federal judiciary.
But lawyers both inside and outside the administration -- none of them willing to be quoted by name -- saw that as a classic non-denial denial. Judges' pay is a staff issue, not a matter for face-to-face lobbying between the titular heads of two branches of the government, they said.
"It's implausible that'd be the only thing they'd discuss," one lawyer said.
Or is it?
Two senior White House officials flatly told The Washington Post's Mike Allen that judicial pay was, in fact, all that the president and the chief justice discussed.
Matters related to Rehnquist's "succession" were not talked about, the officials, interviewed separately, said -- apparently foreclosing the possibility that Rehnquist used part of the meeting to talk about judicial pay, to preserve plausible deniability, then moved on to more dramatic business.
Lending credibility to their assertions is the fact that, if Rehnquist does intend to leave at the end of the term in June and to alert the president ahead of time, mid-December might not be the right time to do it, even in private -- given the inevitability of a leak.
University of Connecticut political scientist David A. Yalof, who studies the Supreme Court selection process, notes that the last chief justice to retire, Warren E. Burger in 1986, waited until late May to let President Ronald Reagan's White House in on his intentions.
"It's hard to imagine Rehnquist would need to commit himself this early," Yalof said.
Also, Rehnquist really does seem to care about what he considers the financial plight of federal judges, who make upwards of $150,000 a year -- but feel acutely the pain of passing up private practice's megabucks.
Rehnquist did not, however, vote to hear an appeal by some aggrieved judges last year. As a result, the court let stand a lower-court ruling that rebuffed the judges' efforts to get back several cost-of-living adjustments that were deleted by Congress.
Grumbling over his decision may be bubbling up to Rehnquist, prompting a gesture like a visit to the White House.
"I do think people were disappointed he did not vote for cert in that case," one judge said.
The president has no authority to decree a judicial pay increase, but his support could help persuade Congress to act.
And, on Dec. 31, Bush released a statement urging Congress "to specifically authorize a pay increase for federal judges."
FRIENDLY DEBATE: Justice Stephen G. Breyer is about to deny bail to an accused killer represented by Johnnie Cochran -- and you can see the dramatic confrontation on national television.
It's all play-acting, of course, part of a PBS Fred Friendly Seminar series called "Our Genes, Our Choices."
Breyer appears in two of the three one-hour programs, which feature a dozen or so prominent Americans wrestling with tough issues raised by recent advances in genetics. In the hypothetical clash with Cochran, which appears in the third installment, Breyer pretends to be a local trial judge; Cochran's client, accused of barroom homicide, may have an uncontrollable genetic predisposition to drink.
It isn't every day that a Supreme Court justice appears on television to debate topical issues, but the Fred Friendly program, named for the distinguished broadcast journalist, is an exception. Potter Stewart, Harry A. Blackmun and Antonin Scalia have been on the show, and this is Breyer's third time.
In an interview, Breyer said he has been interested in scientific matters since his days teaching environmental regulation at Harvard and feels comfortable that the programs do not call on him to take positions on issues pending before the court.
"It's an important public policy issue and it's a good idea to have a judicial perspective, among others," Breyer said.
The first of the three shows aired locally on WETA last Saturday, but it will be repeated on Maryland Public Television on Thursday at 10 p.m.